Travel to China
China, with a landmass which rivals the United States, has the world’s largest population.
China encompasses mainland China along with Hong Kong and Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region).
Occupying a prominent position in Asia, most of China is land locked – in fact it shares borders with over fourteen different countries. The part of China that isn’t landlocked is skirted by the East China Sea, Bay of Korea, Yellow Sea and the South China Sea.
With a wealth of cultural history and beautiful landscapes and scenery, the places to visit in China are truly limitless. Indulge in the architectural beauty of the Potala Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visit and learn about the Forbidden City, the huge army of 2000 year-old terracotta warriors, see the Giant Pandas in Chengdu and so much more.
The cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are relatively modern and wealthy, but the cultural landscape across the country is diverse. What is special about China is that it has nurtured a 5000 year old civilization, with values and features that have changed minimally over the millennia. If you are interested in China’s rich past, what makes such a populous country tick and how it is evolving to keep apace with the changing times, a visit to the country is essential.
Visa Requirements for China
Travelers from many countries will need a valid passport and a China travel visa to visit mainland China with the exception of the citizens of a few countries like Brunei, Japan, Singapore, UAE, Bahamas, Qatar, Serbia and more. In case you require a visa, it should be obtained at an embassy of China prior to departure.
Acquiring a tourist visa is fairly straightforward and the visa once issued, is usually a single entry visa, valid for 30 days.
Important Cultural Information
There are certain behaviors, which while quite acceptable to the Chinese, might be jarring to foreigners. For example it is quite acceptable to spit in public. Many Chinese people believe that swallowing phlegm is unhealthy. Similarly, foreigners might be stared at out of natural curiosity.
Queue jumping is quite common along with talking loudly in public. You may find that covering the mouth during sneezing is uncommon. The Chinese people, in general, love children. Wherever they go, children are treated with love, affection and a certain amount of freedom.
The Chinese believe in lucky numbers. They particularly believe that the numbers 3,6,8 and 9 bring good fortune. Four is considered unlucky, because it sounds like the Chinese word for death.
Banking & Money
The currency of China is the renminbi (RMB) – the base unit of this is the yuan. The yuan is easily convertible from the British pound, US/Canadian/Australian Dollar, Euro and Japanese Yen.
Foreign exchange is quite restricted. Do not opt for private money changers even if exchange rates are attractive. Counterfeit money is a serious problem in China. Opt for exchanging money at the official exchange counter at the Bank of China or other reputable banks. To exchange money, a form must be filled in and your passport needs to be photocopied. Retain the exchange receipt.
You can find ATMs all over the country- Cirrus, MasterCard, Visa and PLUS are accepted card networks. Some ATMs may require a 6 digit pin. Try adding two zeros before your PIN if your PIN only has 4 digits.
Medical Emergency Information
The emergency numbers to remember in China are the following- calling from a cell phone to these numbers is free:
120- for ambulance
119- for firefighters
110- for the police
Chances are that the personnel at the hospital will speak limited English. In the instance of needing ambulatory care, always have the name, address and telephone number of the hospital written in English and Chinese. If possible take someone along to the hospital who speaks fluent Chinese to bridge the gap.
Keep your international health insurance card at hand. Many hospitals in China will not accept medical insurance from other countries, so be aware of the limited number of hospitals who do so. Payment in cash might be expected, although some hospitals in major cities will accept credit card payment.
Wi-Fi and Internet in China
Internet cafes are abundant and frequently used for gaming. Rates are typically quite low – 1-6 yuan an hour. A mobile data card may be purchased for your computer.
Wi-Fi is available in many coffee shops like Starbucks, Costa Coffee and also at McDonalds along with certain private Chinese coffee shops. Wi-Fi is also available at some airports although a Chinese mobile number is often required to login.
Be aware that internet censorship exists in China. This means that Google, Gmail and allied services may be blocked. It is wise to have an alternate email account for usage and to use alternate search engines. Alternatively, use a VPN that works in China.
You can make calls internationally with the help of a calling card. IP Telephone Cards can be bought for as little as 25 yuan and provide English verbal instructions after dialing.
For a short visit, consider renting a Chinese cell phone from companies such as Pandaphone. Daily rates are about 7 yuan a day. Another option is to order a YSIM beforehand – an international SIM Card that can be used in multiple destinations.
Arrival in China
The major international flight gateways in to mainland China include Beijing (PEK), Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is located 32 km outside Beijing city centre and is one of the world’s busiest airports. Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) is one of two international airports serving the Shanghai region, but this one caters to most of the international air traffic. Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) also has a large passenger volume and caters to a number of international airlines.
China can be entered by train from Russia and Europe (via the Trans-Siberian Railway), Kazakhstan and Central Asia, Hong Kong, Vietnam and North Korea.
Given the vastness of China, it shares borders with 14 different countries, which can be approached by road.
Search for flights to China on Expedia.
Areas in China
Here are the places to visit in China that you might want to explore independently or as part of a China tour package.
North China consists of the Yellow River Basin Area containing Inner Mongolia, the city of Beijing, Shandong, Henan, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi and more.
The Northwest consists of a large expanse of land containing deserts, grasslands and mountains, encompassing Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi and more. This was the site of China’s capital for 1000 years.
Tucked in the Northeast corner is the part of China that experiences cold, snowy winters consisting of Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning.
Southwest China includes that swathe of picturesque land that is a pull for backpackers- Tibet, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi.
A smaller coastal region known as a trading center, containing Guangdong, Hainan and Fujian. Zhangjiajie, a city in the northwest of China’s Hunan province, is home to the famed Wulingyuan Scenic Area.
A tract of land containing important farming areas – Sichuan, Anhui, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi.
East China with Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu is another coastal belt and contains booming economic centers.
Hong Kong is one of the two Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of China and was a British colony till 1997, when the sovereignty was transferred to China. It is a major economic hub in Asia, being a harbor city and also being responsible for a large percentage of exports from China to the rest of the world.
Tibet has the glory of being the highest region on Earth with the highest elevation rising to Mount Everest at 8848 m above sea level. Read about the dangers of climbing mount Everest.
The central region of Tibet is an autonomous region inside China known as the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region).
The former abode of the Dalai Lama, Tibet is the homeland of many ethnic groups like Sherpa, Monpa, Tamang etc as well as large numbers of Chinese people.
Transportation in China
Airplane travel is the way to go in China, otherwise you may find yourself traveling for days in the rail or by road.
A number airlines are to be found with flights in China: the international carriers Air China, China Southern and China Eastern along with regional carriers – Hainan Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines and Shanghai Airlines.
Another long-distance transportation option in China is train travel. High-speed train travel is in the stages of development. It has been set in place on selective routes – you can view the popular train routes here (and book).
For shorter distances it might be a good option to opt for bus travel. They are inexpensive and some of the larger cities have announcements in English. Sleeper coach buses are available for inter city travel.
Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen have a subway system.
Taxis are reasonable priced in China and are a good way to travel.
A Chinese driving license is required for driving in China and hence, most rental cars come with drivers.
Motorcycle cabs, rickshaws and the humble bicycle are ways to get out and about in the city.
Accommodations in China
Accommodations in China vary greatly from luxurious five star hotels to the most basic hostels.
Keep in mind that it is absolutely mandatory that you have a valid passport at the time of check-in to the accommodation.
The most luxurious high-end hotels include names like the Shangri-La, Hyatt, Marriott and Chinese high-end brand names. A luxury suite in Shanghai can run up to anything from 10,000 yen a night.
Some hotels in the medium range include 7Days Inn, Motel 168, JJ Inn and more. Rooms in these hotels will range from 150-300 yen a night, often with attached bathrooms and free buffet breakfast.
Places to stay in the low-budget category are numerous. Choose wisely as ultra-cheap options may have issues with cleanliness and safety.
Food & Dining Guide for China
The food of China varies greatly from region to region and given the size of the country, this is really not surprising.
In general the main staple food to the north is wheat in the form of noodles, while it is rice in the south.
The names of the types of Chinese region food include names like Cantonese, Shandong, Sichuan, Hunan, Anhui, Zhejiang, Shanghai and Fujian among others.
Some food items to try are crab soup dumplings, tofu noodles, dim sum, pulled noodles, braised duck, fish balls and Peking Duck among others.
Avoid undercooked food particularly in warm weather, as this may result in bacterial or parasitic infection.
Read our blog post on the most authentic Chinese dishes that you absolutely have to try. For for the vegetarians, it is tricky being a vegetarian in China – but we’ve got a few tips for you!
While the size and cultural wealth of the country provides a vast wealth of opportunities for the visitor to China, there are a few must-visit destinations that should be on your immediate list of China tourist attractions.
Consider Beijing’s Forbidden City, the former abode of countless Chinese Emperors, with over 900 buildings to explore, as one of the foremost Beijing attractions. Of course there are many other things to do in Beijing as well.
Among the other China regions, Shanghai tourist attractions also score high. Visiting the Bund, Yu Garden, the Shanghai World Financial Center are all things to do in Shanghai.
Do not miss the opportunity of visiting the 2000 year old Terracotta Army in Xi’An when in China. The sheer number and vision of the life-size ceramic soldiers, with accompanying horses and chariots is a photographer’s delight.
No list of things to do in China would be complete without a mention of the Great Wall of China. The 13,000 mile long wall is best approached from Beijing.
The Potala Palace in Tibet, former residence of the Dalai Lama is an architectural delight. The Karst landscape along the Li River, the Giant Pandas in Chengdu and Victoria Harbor and Peak in Hong Kong also deserve honourable mentions on the Chinese Bucket List.
Traveling with kids? Read our guide on things to do in Hong Kong with kids, and guide to hiking in Hong Kong.
If you enjoy hiking, you can go hiking up Tiger Leaping Gorge, a scenic canyon on the Jinsha River.
Things to Do and See in China
Shopping in China
There are a number of desirable items that may be bought in China as souvenirs. These include porcelain, art, carpets, jade, pearl jewellery, clothing and other hand made items.
It is illegal to take antiques out of the country, so keep this in mind when making purchases.
Bargaining in the markets is the rule.
Be discerning when buying jade. One variety is the pale, almost colourless variety, which may be processed from synthetic stone or natural stone that has been dyed. The authentic variety is the Burmese Jade that has a good green colour. Good quality jade will mostly be accompanied by good craftsmanship.
The nightlife in China is to be had mostly in the big cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong all have excellent nightlife enjoying opportunities. Revel in everything from karaoke, acrobatic shows, discos, bars and pubs, Chinese opera dinner shows and much more.
Places to experience Beijing nightlife include the bars and clubs in the Sanlitun area. For visitors with a love for music – a night at the Beijing Opera might be just the thing. Snack markets, pubs, discos and clubs abound for the young at heart.
Shanghai nightlife is vibrant as Shanghai certainly lives up to its reputation of being the city that never sleeps, with some of the trendiest nightclubs in the whole of Asia.
Guangzhou nightlife also deserves mention.
While the nightlife in China definitely has its own unique character, there are no dearth of options for the tourist looking out to spend a night on the town.
Safety Tips for China
In general, visiting China as a tourist is safe and crime-free.
However, as with all foreign destinations, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Be cautious when traveling in crowded areas for pickpockets. Trains, bus stations and crowded public transportation are the most likely places where such petty crime might occur.
When possible, travel in groups, especially if taking taxis to remote areas.
A few scams exist in the big cities. One of these is the Chinese teahouse scam, where tourists are taken to tea houses and asked to foot extortionist bills.
Taxi scams at the airport are common. Insist on the driver using his meter and take a cab from the taxi rank.
The most populous country in the world, China had remained a mystery to the world, until it opened its doors to tourists in the ‘70s.
Even though China has experienced a spurt of growth and development that contribute greatly to the comfort of the Western traveler, there are still a few issues that the traveler must be aware of before visiting China.
Expect delays, crowded cities and jostling crowds on the public transport. Be aware that spitting, talking loudly on the street and the lack of awareness of personal space are the norm in China.
Plan everything from the ready availability of money, technology and visa requirements, well in advance of your arrival in China.
Despite these hurdles, there is a lot to look forward to and the following are some China highlights. The beauty of the Potala Palace, the mysteries of the Forbidden City, the cuteness overload of Chengdu’s Giant Pandas, the vastness of the Great Wall and the size of the ancient Terracotta Army- are all guaranteed to make your trip to China, a memorable one.